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What Are We?


Published in The Free Methodist Herald
(Mississauga, Free Methodist Church in Canada, June, 1998)



All of us glow every time we read the question and answer. Q: “What is man that thou art mindful of him?” A: “Thou hast made him little less than God, and dost crown him with glory and honour.” (Psalm 8:4-5) We should glow every time we read it. All men and women are the pinnacle of God’s creation, only slightly less than God himself. Because we are crowned, all of us, without exception, are meant for the royal family; before God there are no commoners. We are crowned with an honour that no one else can snatch from us, an honour we can’t even forfeit ourselves.

Yet this isn’t all we are. When the psalmist asks the same question again, “What is man? woman?”, the answer is different this time: “Man is like a breath; his days are like a passing shadow.” (Psalm 144: 3-4) Our “glow” has given way to sobriety as we are reminded that we are short-lived creatures for whom life passes speedily. In addition we are vulnerable creatures for whom life unfolds perilously.

When Job provides yet another answer to the same question our sobriety gives way to disagreement or disgust or even simple bewilderment. What is man? “A maggot! A worm!” (Job 25:4-6) Before we settle into bewilderment or seethe with disgust, however, we should examine the context of the question. “How can a man be innocent (NEB) or clean (RSV)?” Can a man be righteous in God’s sight? pure?” (NIV) “Maggot! Worm!” It’s the writer’s way of reminding us that we sinners are defiled in God’s sight.

Now I’m the last person to belittle what the psychologists tell us about the importance of positive self-image and self-confidence and ego-strength. The person whose self-confidence has eroded utterly or who has never had any is a truly pathetic creature. Then what are we to make of “Maggot, Worm!”, especially when we all know that maggots frequent rottenness and worms frequent excrement? Is scripture simply fostering a negative self-image, destroying what little self-confidence we have, and ruining the ego-strength we’ve struggled for years to build up?

Not at all. When scripture pronounces us “Maggot, Worm!”, it’s reminding us that sin defiles; we are defiled before a holy God. Defilement is always loathsome. Our sin repulses him. Specifically sin’s defilement deprives us of our access to God; sin’s defilement disqualifies our acceptance with God.

Yet the marvel of God’s grace is that as loathsome as our sin renders us to him, he has made provision for us in the cross of that Son who identifies himself with the loathsome. The paradox of grace is that the more loathsome we are to God the more he longs for us. The glory of the gospel is that while we can (and do) sin our way into God’s mercy, there’s always more mercy in God than there is sin in us!

“Maggot, worm!” So far from being a putdown, an ego-crusher, it’s the most positive thing that can be said of humankind. It’s positive in the first place because it’s the truth about us, and no falsehood, however sweet-sounding, is ultimately helpful or positive. It’s positive in the second place in that such a pronouncement is riddled with hope: sinners can be salvaged and restored.

Years ago I came to see that the most positive thing to be said about human beings is that we are sinners. The alternatives are unrelievably negative. If instead we say that humankind’s root problem is that we are uninformed, we make ourselves the ready victims of propagandists. If instead we say that we are socially maladjusted, we welcome the cruelty of social engineering. If instead we think our root problem to be our material deprivation, we embrace a statist economy; and statist economies, we have seen repeatedly in our century, are human horrific. It’s supremely positive to say that we are sinners: there’s hope for us!

To be sure, it’s the creature crowned with glory and honour that is also the sinner whom the Hebrew writer pronounces “Maggot, worm!” Yet it’s we maggots who, despite our best efforts at doing our worst, cannot forfeit the glory and honour in which we are created. What’s more, the provision God has made for us in his Son declares God’s unqualified longing to have us rid of our defilement and to have our inalienable glory and honour displayed in full splendour.

This is God’s intention for all of us. Some people have recognized it, now affirm it, and are stepping ahead in it. Others continue to scorn it and thrust it away. Yet the invitation and summons remain. And therefore we are to look upon every man and woman as urgently summoned and warmly invited to the fellowship of that Son in whom humankind’s destiny is realized. For God aches to see everyone the beneficiary of it.

As is so often the case, Charles Wesley gathers it all up most compellingly: “O let me commend my Saviour to you.”